Wins like these make a season special. William & Mary was awful until it was amazing Thursday night. The Tribe won a game it had every reason to lose. The ending was so dramatic, frenzied, improbable, coach Tony Shaver figured he might forego his typical postgame cool down period and watch a replay of the final minute some time around 3 a.m.
Sure the comeback came against the last-place team at home. William & Mary had no business trailing James Madison by 20 points in the first place. Down nine points with 45 seconds remaining, the Tribe appeared to be losing hold of first place before having a chance to know how it felt.
Then, Connor Burchfield stole the ball. Known for his shooting because he’s one of the best in the nation but having an off night (1-for-6 on 3s), the slender senior from Concord swiped the ball from Stuckey Mosley and converted the layup.
Through most of the first 35 minutes the Tribe was outhustled, executed poorly and allowed too many offensive possessions to end with dribbles into danger, straying from the driving, passing and ball sharing which enabled it to enter the game as the nation’s best shooting team. Players complained about officials’ whistles, made silly passes and missed the open shots they’d been hitting.
But when Burchfield cut the deficit to seven points with 43 seconds remaining, Kaplan Arena got loud, the team’s belief grew even stronger and the Dukes helped out any way they could, missing four free throws and committing two turnovers in those final possessions.
Matt Milon rattled in a 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds remaining to tie the game. Burchfield tipped the ball away from Mosley enough to throw off his timing before he launched the potential game-winner and the game went to overtime.
JMU scored five points in the final 150 seconds. But the Dukes were feisty if not polished. After falling behind by four points in overtime, they regained a one-point lead with 1:15 remaining when freshman Matt Lewis (game-high 22 points) buried two free throws. Milon answered again, cutting backdoor to take a feed from Burchfield and finish the layup. Burchfield made another steal (and later a block) and the Tribe did winning things to increase its lead to two games over five teams in the conference standings.
When the final buzzer sounded, the 1.36 points per possession and 64 percent shooting William & Mary allowed in the first half had long been forgotten. And in less than 48 hours the Tribe welcomes Towson, who Shaver described as one of the toughest and most talented teams in the conference. After being picked 8th in the preseason poll, William & Mary has played with a chip on its shoulder for most of the season, Shaver said. The Tribe lost that edge for a while on Thursday night but picked it back up just in time.
Two-time CAA Player of the Week Nathan Knight struggled early against JMU’s aggressive defensive game plan. He never looked completely comfortable and foul trouble set in during the second half, sending him from the game with 2:32 remaining and his team trailing by 10. Knight needs to develop his right hand because conference opponents are going to sit on his left. Still, on an ‘off-night’ he ended up with 21 points, five rebounds and 12 of 12 on free throws in 29 minutes.
JMU’s Matt Lewis played like an all-league guard in the first half (6 of 7, 19 points). He played like a freshman in the second half (0 of 6, 1 point). He’s going to be a good player for the Dukes. I like his confidence, speed and shooting stroke. He’ll play a bunch of minutes and be a 1,000-point scorer, at the least.
William & Mary is winning hard fought games because individuals are proving they are more than one-dimensional players, for the good of the team. Not only did Burchfield make significant contributions on the defensive end, but Justin Pierce overcame a 1-for-5 shooting effort by snagging 17 rebounds – with 16 in the last 25 minutes. The Tribe is overcoming a lack of depth – Shaver’s rotation is essentially six players with cameos from forward Cole Harrison and guard Oliver Tot – because players understand they have to fill multiple columns in the box score and make contributions that go beyond.
Matt Milon has been a terrific addition to coach Tony Shaver’s squad this season. The transfer from Boston College averaged 15 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 3.0 apg in two Tribe victories last week. W&M seeks its first 3-0 CAA start since 1997-98 tonight at Delaware.
At this juncture, William & Mary could be considered a mild surprise. On the flip side, Towson’s 0-2 start was less predictable although the scheduling lords dealt coach Pat Skerry a cup of week old she crab soup by sending them on the road to open the league slate against the two teams that sandwiched them on top of the preseason poll, Charleston and Elon. Of course, what goes south must come north in the CAA and the crabs are served with tiny hammers in the Mid-Atlantic. The Tigers look forward to the home cookin’. They’re 28-6 in SECU Arena the last three years.
There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said, “Forget me not”
– Bob Dylan
The NCAA tournament, in particular the opening week, is an almost perfect event. From the haggling over seeds on Selection Sunday to the thrill of the First Four in Dayton to the upsets and near-misses, stars and stories emerging from the flurry of games in those four days when the field dwindles to 16, it delivers everything we love about basketball and sports.
CAA teams have enjoyed amazing moments in the NCAA tournament since David Robinson led Navy to the Elite 8 in 1986. March Madness will always provide the ultimate platform where a league can earn respect and name recognition beyond its region. There’s also the money, which is nice.
Conversations like this were real not that long ago. And they were fun and came to fruition.
But the tournament can also cloud our collective vision. I watched it unfold in a flurry of Tweets last night in the minutes after upstart Tulane upset American Athletic Conference power SMU. While folks gave credit to the Green Wave, much of the conversation focused on how this would hurt the American’s opportunity to receive more than its customary two or three bids to the NCAA tournament. And, those statements are accurate. From that perspective, sure it’s better for SMU to win the game. But that’s also a myopic view.
Step back and think about it from the Tulane side. The Green Wave has a losing record in 108 seasons of playing basketball. Outside a six or seven year run under Perry Clark when Tulane discovered magic in the Metro, the program has been merely a footnote in New Orleans sports, ranking somewhere behind the Saints, LSU Football, LSU Recruiting, LSU Tailgating and a host of other activities including but not limited to competitive Hurricane drinking. Now, because the Tulane administration applied original thinking and hired a coach with decades of NBA coaching experience but none in college, Mike Dunleavy Sr., the Green Wave sits on the cusp of being relevant again. They are 11-4, also have a road victory over Temple and upcoming games against Memphis and UConn all of a sudden appear quite winnable. It may all go to hell in a bucket in a month or two but right now these are damn near magical times around a Tulane program that’s enjoyed two 20-win seasons this millennium. Discussing a team’s fight to finish above .500 or win 20 games doesn’t draw the same interest as debating those 36 at-large bids, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. Teams all over the country are out there trying to build something similar.
In short, more than 280 teams do not make the NCAA tournament each year. Doesn’t make their seasons a failure, necessarily. Also, there are two sides to every story. It’s one of my biggest gripes with most beat writing today. Too many folks are telling only one side. The other team has scholarship players and smart coaches too. Sometimes, it’s not about what one team didn’t do, but about what their opponent did well.
OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming …
As Jerry Beach pointed out late Wednesday night, nine teams have scored at least 100 points in a conference game since the start of last season. That’s also the number of teams who reached the century mark from 2001-02 to 2015-16.
The 100-pt #CAAHoops games since last year:
1/2/18: UNCW 107, Drex 87
3/5/17: UNCW 105, W&M 94
2/23/17: NU 105, Elon 104 2OT
2/4/17: UNCW 108, UDee 80
2/2/17: Tow 104, Drex 103 2OT
1/30/17: W&M 108, Drex 85
1/12/17: UNCW 101, W&M 77
In 2011-12, the last season the CAA included VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion, conference games produced the worst offensive efficiency (0.98) of all 32 conferences. But the trend toward offense is real. The conference was fifth last season, with teams churning out a hefty 1.069 points per trip in league affair.
The times they are a changin’ indeed. In the opening week of the season, CAA games produced the highest effective field goal percentage in all 32 conferences (54.2) and the second-best offensive efficiency (109.8) in the intraleague scuffles. Maybe coaches will adjust and shooters will turn cold.
Or, just sit back and watch the buckets rain. Oh where have you gone, Bruiser and Blaine?
Each team gets two chances in 48 hours this weekend to show off its array of offensive skills. The CAA packed four games into the first nine days, as has been the case in recent years and the highlight of the entire weekend is the Charleston – Towson rematch in Maryland at 2 p.m. Sunday. Hammers and bibs, optional.
Elon’s only home loss since Dec. 31st, 2016 was the double overtime thriller against Northeastern in the final week of last season. But the Phoenix are heading north to sunny – and cold – Boston to face a Northeastern squad that’s desperate to salvage a homestand following a one-point loss to Hofstra.
UNCW at Towson
Through the tiny sample size of two games, UNCW has been the CAA’s best offensive rebounding team (36 percent of missed shots). Towson has been the CAA’s best defensive rebounding team (14 percent).
The Seahawks lost four starters, three of whom were All-CAA selections, from last season’s 29-win team. C.J. Bryce would’ve been my pick for CAA Player of the Year as a junior if he’d opted not to follow Kevin Keatts to N.C. State. After UNCW whipped Drexel by 20 on Tuesday, McGrath told me he just wants to see improvement from this unit, which doesn’t have those guys or Keatts’ five-man recruiting class, which was considered the best in school history, or expected returnees JaQuel Richmond (dismissed) and Matt Elmore (injured), who McGrath envisioned as starters. Improvement might be difficult to gauge tonight against an angry bunch of Tigers.
William & Mary at Delaware, 7 p.m.
Kevin Anderson, Delaware’s excellent freshman guard (13.7 ppg) had season-ending knee surgery. That stinks.
William & Mary’s 2-point proficiency is striking. The Tribe has made 44.8 percent of its 2-point jump shots (11th in nation), per hoop-math.com. Even better, the Tribe takes 2s selectively (20.1 percent of all field goal attempts). It leads the nation in 3-point shooting (43.6 percent) and 42 percent of its field goals are from behind-the-arc. The rest are at the rim.
The key to William & Mary’s offensive efficiency is transition execution, specifically finding open shooters in advantage or less than 5-on-5 situations. The Tribe’s effective field goal percentage in transition is 75.0, which leads the nation. More than half of its shots in transition are 3-pointers and 51 percent have dropped. W&M point guard David Cohn has 92 assists and 39 have been dealt in transition. With its plethora of shooters, guarding the Tribe 5-on-5 isn’t much fun either, but it’s probably a defense’s best chance of holding coach Shaver’s club under the 1.12 points per possession they average.
Then, opponents have to deal with this guy:
Click the link below to see how Knight’s season stacks up statistically against top-notch CAA big men from the past.
Here’s a piece of good news for Hofstra and fans: Snow blowers are half-price at the neighborhood hardware store. Just kidding, the neighborhood hardwood store went out of business trying to sell CAA rockfights. The Pride hit only 25.8 percent of its 3-pointers in splitting against W&M and Northeastern in the opening week. It’s a better shooting team than that number indicates. The Pride has also been wandering the earth like Caine in Kung Fu, separated from its home floor since late November. That probably means trouble for the Dukes.
Charleston at Drexel
If the Cougars plan to continue scoring 1.29 points per possession against conference competition, we can all just save ourselves the time and convene down in North Charleston, SC in a couple of months. Joe Chealey, Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley have been dominant.
Drexel gave up 1.32 points per possession in losses at Elon and UNCW. This one could get ugly unless there’s significant regression to the mean from each side.